As I near my 42nd birthday, it should be obvious to me by now that it is not wise to make blind assumptions and jump to conclusions, particularly given my chosen profession. Shame on me! I was ignorant to have made assumptions about what the Texas Prison Museum is all about, since, until yesterday, I’d never been to the museum and had never even seen any information about the museum. For the record, however, I wasn’t totally wrong. Mostly wrong is much more accurate.
As I blogged the night before I went to the museum, I suspected that the upcoming excursion would demonstrate that the museum is little more than a PR device for TDCJ. The museum is, in fact, not part of TDCJ at all. It’s a non profit organization, and it is a pretty fascinating place to spend a couple of hours. The museum’s website is www.txprisonmuseum.org
The museum is run by a former TDCJ Warden, Jim Willet, and several other former career TDCJ employees work at the museum. I suspect there are quite a few people living in the Huntsville area who are former TDCJ employees, given the number and age of the prisons within 30 miles of Huntsville.
It is obvious that the people who run the museum care very much about portraying the history of the Texas prison system in an unbiased and accurate light. As an added benefit, I found the staff to be very friendly and helpful to the museum’s guests. The gift “shop”, which is really just the lobby of the museum, had plenty of interesting things for sale, including some hand made items made by prisoners.
Ok, maybe the average Joe would not be curious enough to last 2 hours in this unique place, but anyone who has an interest in the Texas penal system will enjoy their visit. I was there for well over an hour, and regretted that I had to leave in order to make the drive over to Navasota (Luther Unit). My field trip ended when my professional responsibilities beckoned.
It should come as no surprise that the museum’s most valuable “artifact” is the one and only Texas electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky”, that was formerly used to execute 361 people from 1924 to 1964.
As a side note, the state has executed 468 people by lethal injection since 1982. Hmmm, let’s see, 361 people electrocuted in 40 years, then 468 people injected over the past 29 years…I thought the death penalty was supposed to be a deterrent for would be criminals. I try to imagine, as preposterous as it seems, that the typical person who is just about to murder another human being stops and says to himself, “Well, I could get the death penalty if I do this, so I better not.” Anyway, I digress.
The museum does an excellent job of presenting the history of executions in Texas, without revealing any real bias one way or the other on the use of the death penalty in the Texas justice system. Despite the exhibits on the death penalty, it would be a mistake to assume that the history of capital punishment in Texas is the museum’s focus. Instead, there was a great deal of emphasis placed on the many changes to the Texas prison system over the period from 1848 to the present.
There have been plenty of changes over the years, and my one criticism of the museum is that it fails to do much of anything to ask why so many failures have persisted for so long, and why so few people were held accountable for these colossal failures. To this day, despite giving lip service to “rehabilitation”, the budgetary limitations that prevent meaningful educational and vocational opportunities are a severe impediment to effectuating the kind of rehabilitation that we should expect. Anyway, back to my tour of the museum…
One of the more interesting exhibits is the one in which the museum honors TDCJ employees killed in the line of duty. Some of them died in car or bus crashes, but a good number died at the hands of prisoners. This serves as a sober reminder that a prison can still be a very dangerous place to work. The museum honored these people by providing the tragic details of their deaths.
My favorite exhibit is the one that provides insights into some of the more famous (and infamous) inmates that have passed through the Texas prison system. David Crosby, Olympic Gold Medalist and Dallas Cowboy Hall of Fame Wide Receiver Bob Hayes, among others.
There is no doubt in my mind that I will return to the museum soon, and I will surely learn and experience things that I did not adequately see during the inital visit. I’ll gladly pay the 4 bucks it costs to get in the door. Kids are charged $3, and little kids are free. If I recall correctly, TDCJ employees also have to pay $3.
When I do go back to the Texas Prison Museum, I am going to make sure I block out at least another hour or two, and I’m sure I will learn something.